In mid-April 2013 I had lunch with an enthusiastic law student from Stockholm University who expressed the view that Sweden is not a democracy or at least not a fair one. Her arguments covered a rather large spectrum - from how the electoral system was structured to the way power was distributed between Parliament and its executive committees. She expressed her constitutional opinion ingeniously: our constitution is rewritten according to the ways we live; we do not live according to how it is written.
I was reminded of that argument when I listened to a panel discussion between Mats Lindberg, a professor in political science at Örebro University and Mats Einarsson, lead author of the constitutional draft proposal "... just a pen stroke" at the 2013 Swedish Republican Association congress. Mr Lindberg, who led the idea of a constitution without a head of state, pointed out that the 1974 constitutional reform was based on an adaptation to the constitutional reality of Sweden. The constitution about to be replaced established in 1809 began with "The kingdom of Sweden shall be governed by a king and be a successional kingdom with the succession order of a deceased king's male descendant, as determined by the estates of the realm." With the introduction of parliamentarism in Sweden in 1917, the constitution became obsolete and was finally rewritten in 1974 to begin with "All [public] power in Sweden is based on the people". The word “public” was added much later.
In response to a question from a member of the audience, Mr Lindberg stated he did not believe the monarchy would dissolve at a certain point in time but rather that time would grind down the monarchy. The answer made me quietly question the level of ambition we as republicans should have in our quest for a republic? In 1972 the prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme stated that "[t]his completely rewritten constitution constitutes a constitutional foundation of parliamentarism, which is a large step towards the establishment of a republic – from there it is just about a legislative pen stroke." Mr Palme highlighted the constitutional amendment as a guidance to which we should relate – when in fact it was nothing as such. It was simply a paraphrase of the way our constitution over the course of time had been reformed. After nearly 60 years Mr Palme was convinced that a constitutional republic was no more distant than a stroke of a pen on a constitutional legislation. If we as Republicans 40 years after Mr Palme's speech still do not dare to embrace the issue of a timed transition into a republic, that pen stroke will become a runic for our posterity. Future republican generations will question what we really did when we had the opportunity in plain sight.
We may have various opinions about the design of the republic and the need to once and for all formalize the republic we already live in. But for me as a dedicated republican, the most important issue is by far the one that is rarely raised in the public discussion. What is the foundation of our constitution? I constantly question whether we should enact laws for the purpose of following them or revising laws according to how we live? The constitution must state that Sweden is a constitutional republic, but it must also be the last receipt-based constitutional change established by the Swedish parliament. The constitution should be our guideline, not just a receipt of something that already exists.
Mr Lindberg's argument is intriguing - it revitalizes the republican debate. But I urge all devoted republicans not to get caught up in the philosophical "time-resolves-this-problem" attitude. That may just push the constitutional pen stroke to be written into our history books as one of the republic's greatest failures.
Filed under: constitutional law